Teach your Children Well

Years ago, when I was a proper working person and not a layabout pensioner, I was a teacher. I worked in primary schools, beginning with the oldest children, in a tenement style school in Stockwell, London and finishing with the tiny tots in the reception class in a seaside village.

During the first, pre-career break time there was room for some experimentation in the classroom. There was the freedom to implement such ideas as ‘bay-working’, where the room was split into areas or ‘bays’, each bay being set up for some independent work in a specific curriculum subject.

When I returned to reaching after a ten year career break [having my own children] there was still a culture of freedom and the school where I taught implemented a system called ‘integrated day’, the idea being that a topic was chosen and the learning arose from delving into curriculum areas around that topic.

During the years I worked in the integrated day system I can never remember any of us, children included, feeling stressed, bored or exhausted [although, to be fair I was still relatively young]. The children, no matter what age, were responsible for their own day’s achievements and became independent from not being ‘spoon-fed’ every skill and piece of knowledge. We considered ourselves providers or facilitators and all of us attended school each day with a buzzy feeling of enthusiasm for what the day would bring.

Within the system we used ‘real’ books for reading. We’d quietly withdraw a specific ability group to teach a skill in Maths or English or hear individuals read then filter them back in to practise what they’d learned. Art, science, story writing, technology or play would all be going on simultaneously.

There were many opportunities for children to help each other and enjoy roles and responsibilities. Everyone could say what they were doing and why. The behaviour was mature and sensible, even though sixty or seventy children would be sharing a [large] area.

Within three or four years of this halcyon period the ‘national curriculum’ was introduced. Nine curriculum subjects were identified and separated. There was no more linking up areas into topics. The concept of targets crept in. Appraisal and the beginning of scrutiny began. Some bright, government ambition-seeker invented OFSTED. Fear became a feature of every day teaching life.

There was no more opportunity for integrated day, for children to feel empowered by their independence. The parents no longer trusted us. Testing, in the form of SATS was thought up, a system the parents fixated on and became obsessed with, their children’s ‘level’ being the only thing that mattered-more than motivation, achievement, self-esteem or happiness.

I believe that parents, teachers and anyone who is involved with children’s development should aim to foster a spirit of independence in thought and action, maintain the natural desire to learn and encourage kindness, respect and support of each other, just as we used to. That way we may have a hope of growing and nurturing a kind, caring and intelligent society and not the grasping, selfish and ignorant culture we are stuck with today.

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What’s in a Name?

Giving someone a name is a weighty responsibility. Parents-to-be could do worse than wile away the months of waiting by pondering which names will give their new arrival the best start in life. They should take care. It may be tempting to follow trends or get carried away with the idea of using the name of your favourite footballer, actor or rap artist; the allure of an invented name may be strong, or perhaps the use of an iconic place, weather condition or season. Research however suggests that names carry a heavy influence in the lottery of life’s successes and failures. Want your child to attend a prestigious university? Name your son James or Simon, your daughter, Eleanor.

A fiction writer building up a character can convey a great deal in the selection of their name. Gender, age, social class and nationality can all be carried in this one word. Hilda, Ivy, Albert or Fred? You know which generation they are from. Gillian, Susan, Peter or Colin? You know these too, although of course some names ‘come back’ into fashion [‘Alfie’ and ‘Stanley’ are two of these].

Teachers who become parents have a more difficult task in naming their offspring. The pool of possibilities will be shallower, since most names will carry connotations. The classrooms of my past are littered with negative memories of ‘Jasons’, ‘Waynes’, ‘Sharons’ and ‘Traceys’. For some mysterious reason, as soon as I went public with my firstborn’s name, proud of having selected something neither outlandish nor too ubiquitous, there was an explosion of the name-the hospital nursery bursting at the seams with them so that my son was destined always to share his name with thousands across his peer group.

Teachers are also used to bearing witness to parents’ inabilities in the field of spelling. Many children begin school [and life] saddled with an eccentric and misspelt name. Parents-bear in mind that your child’s teacher will have to begin the school year by compiling numerous class lists for a wide variety of purposes. If you furnish your little one with a long, hyphenated and complicated moniker this is going to be both time consuming and aggravating for their teacher, especially coupled with double-barrelled surnames, which consistently fail to fit into any sort of grid.

I loved the recent story of the research ship that was the subject of an on line competition to find a name. One wag’s suggestion of ‘Boaty McBoatface’, though not meant to be taken seriously became a clear favourite and attracted more than 18,000 votes, an endorsement that serves to show the British sense of humour is alive and kicking, even if the instigators of the competition are intending to overrule the choice.

 

Tech Talk

                A news item that amused me this week was the announcement that children are to be taught ‘computer language’ at school.  The first thought that struck me was ‘Good!’ because a large [and larger by the year] number of children entering school have no language whatsoever, or none that can be understood, and perhaps they will gain some means of communication. In a class of 5 and 6 year olds I taught a child repeatedly came to me and said ‘Srink!, srink!’. It took me some time to work out that this meant he would like to get a drink.

                And then I wondered when this teaching of computer language is to take place. During the last twenty years, any number of bits have been added to the school curriculum, and as far as I can tell, nothing has been subtracted. All this adds up to a mighty long day, surely? If they are to get enough sport-and this is in response to the growing obesity problem, begin to grow and cook their own food [does anyone besides a teacher know what the logistics of gardening and cooking with a class of 30 kids entails?], do enough literacy and numeracy [we are told every day how innumerate the population is becoming], study ‘citizenship’, learn how to be healthy, get a bit of religion and pick up some art, music, history, geography and dance [oh-and what about science and technology?], when is this language learning to take place? Did I leave anything out? I wonder, seriously if they should be allowed to go home at all, since they will have no time to eat dinner, wash or sleep.

                And who is going to teach it? During the 90s we all had to undergo some stringent training to be able to use and/or teach information technology-and yes, we did teach quite a bit of programming, even then. Remember the turtle, ‘pen down’ and programming it to draw patterns on paper the floor?

                I can see the time approaching when the middle man can be cut out entirely. Let’s not bother with teaching anyone about talking computer speak-let’s just let the computers talk to each other. I feel convinced they will make a much better job of conversation than the majority of humans will in the future. As I said in a long distant [but still much visited] post, The Art of Conversation is struggling to survive anyway and most people seem to commune exclusively with some kind of screen. In fact, I suppose in the end machines will rule the world and mankind will simply fade away to become an exhibit in a museum visited by robots.

School is nearly out

“Michael Gove axes six-week summer holidays for schools

The education secretary is warned a ‘free for all’ could emerge after headteachers get the freedom to set their own term dates”

 

                Little Govey, I suspect is one of the ‘teachers’ have too easy a life’ brigade. Once upon a time, when I was a key stage one school teacher I was, along with everyone else I knew in teaching, subjected to those old chestnut phrases long beloved of non teachers:

  • Nine to three job
  • Lovely! All those long holidays
  • What, another holiday?
  • Easy life!

                In time I learned a retort which was to silence the barbed, jealous swipes people made about my job. I’d simply say-“Why aren’t you doing it, then?”

                There are still numerous myths surrounding teaching as a job. Firstly, the ‘long, six week, summer holiday’ no longer exists [in the state sector]. It just about struggles to five weeks, for children. Take another two weeks off for the teachers. That’s the minimum time it takes to clear up from one class and prepare for the next. A primary phase teacher will have to organise a [probably new to her] classroom, label everything, cover display boards [like wallpapering an enormous room], put up initial displays covering aspects of reward systems etc, organise the students into different ability groups for at least two curriculum areas and prepare curriculum long term, medium term and lesson plans for each of those groups in each curriculum area, besides preparing the accompanying resources and making individual provision for anyone with individual needs. After the first year of teaching there will also be at least one curriculum area to manage, including an ‘action plan’ and the ordering and organisation of resources.

                How, I wonder does the education secretary imagine that all this is to be done if holidays are taken at random?

                For children nowadays it is more important than ever not to miss out parts of the term. The curriculum is carefully constructed in steps, with each next step built on the progress made in the last. To miss two weeks would be like watching the first part of a TV thriller followed by the last. You would be unlikely to understand what was going on without the middle section.

                Once the term begins, a teacher will be in place long before the bell rings for registration, getting out all the resources, loading up the computer with all the pre-planned teaching aids and preparing the classroom for the morning onslaught-then the same frantic activity at ‘lunchtime’ ready for the afternoon. Once the pupils have left there is sorting out, marking, assessment, adjustment of plans, meetings, training sessions, report writing, etc-on top of a demanding day with small children. More often than not, there will be more work to take home for the evening.

                There will also be stressful observations [both internal and with the dreaded ‘OFSTED’] to undergo. Manifestations of disruptive behaviour or low ability during observations are deemed to be the fault of the teacher, always.

                So, little Mr Gove, understand that such holidays as there are exist as a lifeline for beleaguered teachers.

                Oh…and parents…your children don’t go to school to be babysat…a school holiday is an opportunity for you to share experiences and fun as a family, not a time to be carped about as a nuisance. OK?

                Here endeth the lecture!